On Saturday, January 13, the people of Hawaii received a terrifying message on their phones, repeated on television and radio stations, which had received a similar alert: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
But actually, it was something of a drill, in that the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (HI-EMA) was running a routine test at the end of a shift and accidentally sent the message state-wide.
Unfortunately, it took 38 minutes for the agency to correct the alert with a second alert. Although state leaders quickly tweeted out corrections, Hawaii citizens who were waiting for an all-clear from the same outlet spent more than half an hour in suspense.
In a press conference on Saturday after the incident, Hawaii Governor David Ige said that “human error” had caused the false alarm.
“We are working to evaluate everything in the sequence of today’s activities, so a single person will not be able to make an error that triggers another false alarm,” Ige said.
Vern Miyagi, Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency Administrator, also took the podium at the press conference to apologize.
“We spent the last few months trying to get ahead of this whole threat so that we could provide as much notification and preparation time to the public,” Miyagi said. “…I accept responsibility for this, this is my team, we made a mistake.”
Miyagi added that the message was sent in error when an employee accidentally designated that the message was supposed to be an “event” rather than a “test” in the software that sent notifications. The notification was sent via Wireless Emergency Alert to cellphone users, as well as to television and radio broadcast channels. HI-EMA did not have an automated way to send a cancellation of an “event” message, so it had to issue one manually, Governor Ige said in the press conference, which caused a delay in correcting the notification.
While HI-EMA issued clarifications on Facebook and Twitter, which Hawaii’s leaders shared, the lack of an “all-clear” from the same outlet that the alert had come from caused concern.
In addition, some sirens throughout the state started blaring, while others remained silent. Governor Ige and Miyagi announced at the press conference that no sirens should have been engaged because the drill was supposed to occur internally, so the state would have to look into what actually happened.
HI-EMA said that immediately after the alert, the agency instituted a system that would require two people to sign off on a missile alert. It also created an automated way to cancel a missile alert in case of a mistake.
Miyagi added that despite the false alert, “the threat is there.” He said Hawaii’s missile defense system would provide citizens 12 to 13 minutes of preparation in the event of a real attack.
Several minutes after the alert was sent out, Hawaii state representative Tulsi Gabbard tweeted “HAWAII – THIS IS A FALSE ALARM. THERE IS NO INCOMING MISSILE TO HAWAII. I HAVE CONFIRMED WITH OFFICIALS THERE IS NO INCOMING MISSILE.” She later accused deteriorating relations with North Korea of fanning panic. “The people of Hawaiʻi should never have had to go through this,” the representative tweeted. “The people of America should not be faced with this threat right now. We need peace—not political bickering. We have to talk to North Korea and find a peaceful path to get rid of this nuclear threat.”
Hawaii’s senators, Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono, also denounced the error. “There is no missile threat,” Schatz tweeted Saturday morning. “It was a false alarm based on a human error. There is nothing more important to Hawai‘i than professionalizing and fool-proofing this process.”
According to CNN military analyst John Kirby, HI-EMA does not have the power to detect missile threats on its own. In the event of a real missile threat, HI-EMA would receive warning from US Pacific Command, which confirmed via Twitter that the missile notice was in error and that a correction was being issued. An official also told CNN that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Homeland Security, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) were “monitoring the situation.”
On Saturday, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai called for action. The commission regulates the Wireless Emergency Alerts that went out to people’s mobile phones, as well as TV and radio broadcasts. On Sunday morning, the Commission published a press release saying:
The FCC’s investigation into this incident is well underway. We have been in close contact with federal and state officials, gathering the facts about how this false alert was issued. Based on the information we have collected so far, it appears that the government of Hawaii did not have reasonable safeguards or process controls in place to prevent the transmission of a false alert.
Moving forward, we will focus on what steps need to be taken to prevent a similar incident from happening again. Federal, state, and local officials throughout the country need to work together to identify any vulnerabilities to false alerts and do what’s necessary to fix them. We also must ensure that corrections are issued immediately in the event that a false alert does go out.
Senator Schatz was positive about the FCC’s involvement. “Just got off the phone w @AjitPaiFCC and glad they are going to work with us on developing best practices on the communications side for states and municipalities to make sure this never happens again,” Schatz tweeted. “This system failed miserably and we need to start over.”
In a Saturday press release (PDF), HI-EMA said a more detailed report on what happened and corrective actions taken would be made available later this week.
Listing image by Tulsi Gabbard